About

Gray squirrel © Dave Morrin
Gray squirrel © Dave Morrin

Most New Englanders are familiar with the ever-present gray squirrels. An extremely adaptable species, squirrels are at home everywhere from midtown parks to oak forests.

Identification

Gray squirrels are typically 17 to 20 inches long. They have large fluffy tails that are almost half their body length. They are typically gray with a white underside, but some can be black, brown, or white. They are comfortable in suburban and urban areas.

You’re most likely to confuse gray squirrels with the smaller but similarly-shaped American red squirrels. While some gray squirrels can be reddish, American red squirrels are much smaller, averaging about 12 inches long, and they have a white ring around the eye. They are also less tolerant of urban areas.

Northern and southern flying squirrels also inhabit Massachusetts, but they only emerge at night. They average about 10 to 15 inches long and have flat tails for gliding through the air.

Behavior

Squirrels are alert, inquisitive, and aggressive rodents. They can move as rapidly through treetops as they do on the ground and easily negotiate vines, shrubbery, telephone wires, downspouts, and walls of brick, stucco, or wood. They can jump six feet straight up and can launch themselves a distance of 10 feet or more from a tree, building, or railing to reach a bird feeder.

Squirrels are busiest at dawn and late afternoon. They remain active year-round, and can feed during rain or snowstorms, generally keeping dry and warm under their broad tail, which they arch and spread over their back. Because their incisor teeth grow constantly, squirrels must constantly sharpen them by gnawing bark, wood, plastic, metal, or whatever is available.

In the wild, a squirrel’s average life span rarely exceeds four years. Predators that control squirrel numbers include hawks, owls, foxes, and house cats. People hunt and trap them for sport, fur, and food. Automobiles also kill these animals.

Food

You can find squirrels wherever nut-bearing trees such as oak, hickory, or beech grow. When nuts are abundant, squirrels bury food for use during the winter. A highly developed sense of smell enables them to readily locate the cached food.

In early spring, squirrels feed on buds and flowers of red and sugar maples, on tulip or crocus bulbs and blossoms, and later in the spring on the seeds of maple and elm trees. In summer they consume berries, apples, corn, and other grains and become predatory, taking birds' eggs and nestlings from open nests or gnawing their way into birdhouses to get at them. Of course, bird-feeding stations provide a bonanza of nourishment. Read More

Life Cycle

Two mating seasons occur per year, one in late January or February and again in late May or June. Courtship and mating are characterized by noisy, energetic chases through the treetops.

Following a 44 day gestation, the first litter of three to five young is born in March or early April and the second in August or September. The eyes of the young open at four to five weeks and they’re weaned at 10 or 12 weeks. The first litter usually remains with the mother until the second litter is born in late summer. The young born in late summer stay with her until the following spring. 

Nests

Gray squirrels usually maintain two dwellings. The large leaf and twig nests that are used in summer are a familiar sight high in the crotch of a tree when the nests are exposed to view in the fall. These nests are sometimes used as temporary quarters in winter if a food supply is nearby. However, the preferred winter home of this species is a more permanent and protected den, usually in a cavity of a living hardwood tree or in the attic or eaves of a house.

Color Variations

Despite their name, gray squirrels are not always gray. The squirrel changes color slightly during its twice-yearly molt, becoming tawny gray in summer and silvery gray in winter. The rare squirrel that appears all white is technically a gray squirrel, but with a reduced amount of dark pigment. These squirrels are considered leucistic or partially albinistic. In order to be a true albino, the squirrel would also have pink eyes. Black squirrels are also gray squirrels, and exist due to a genetic mutation. Learn more

Situations & Solutions

Although people often delight in the playful antics of these creatures, squirrels can become destructive when they enter houses. For people who like to feed birds, squirrels are Public Enemy Number One. Find out your options